Tag Archives: Streaming on Netflix

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

The college admission scandal was a hot and juicy news item for a minute. Rick Singer was getting rich kids into college through a “side door” called money. Money paid to Singer inflated test scores while bribes to college coaches went to fabricating phony athletic profiles for the prospective student, allowing the coach to “recruit” them. Kids who stood no chance of getting admitted into a good college were now strolling right through a side door thanks to mommy and daddy’s wallet. This got a lot of play in the media because it meant rich white people were scamming a system already designed to highly favour them. There was not a lot of sympathy in the story (except maybe for the clueless kids whose own parents knew them to be too dumb to earn anything meritoriously). Plus the whiff of disgraced celebrities (Lori Laughlin, Felicity Huffman) was hard to resist.

This documentary enlists a host of actors including Matthew Modine and Josh Stamberg to reenact an FBI investigation that went after not just kingpin Rick Singer, but the bribed officials and the shady parents as well.

What it does particularly well, and makes it worth the watch, is keeping its target on the “victim” of these crimes, the colleges themselves. The true victims are of course the many applicants who were refused because their rightful places were taken by undeserving kids, but in the court’s eyes, it was the colleges who were defrauded. But as the documentary cleverly points out, the colleges have not only benefited (and not been required to pay back the bribes) from the situation, they’re the ones who created it. The side door was used primary by rich families who weren’t quite rich enough to use the back door that American colleges and universities leave purposefully propped open. Donations of about $10 million tend to net candidates preferential admissions consideration. And that’s to say nothing of the problematic front door, where the most elite schools are only accessible only to those rich enough to pay the exorbitant fees, privileged enough to attend schools that adequately prepare them, and white enough to ace culturally-biased entrance exams. The law may have let these schools off the hook, but Operation Varsity Blues does not.

Secret Magic Control Agency

Fairy tales come together in a new and only mildly interesting way in this buddy cop animated film with a magical twist that’ll only prove satisfying to young and undiscerning audiences.

You may have heard of Hansel and Gretel, who in this film are all grown up and sadly estranged. But they’ve reunited, against their will, to work a very important case. Gretel is a dedicated agent at the Secret Magic Control Agency while her brother Hansel is a criminal who uses magic to swindle folks. But when the King is kidnapped by a disgruntled royal chef who can bring food to life to act as her henchmen, for some reason only Hansel and Gretel together can solve the case and save the king. And, I should mention, in the process they get turned into children, making their mission even harder, as people tend to discount kids and not take them seriously and shit.

This movie didn’t strike me as special or interesting or good in any way, but I do think that sentient spaghetti and cupcake dogs will have a certain irresistible cachet with young kids. For adults, though, or even kids over 8 with good taste, this one’s not quite going to cut it.

Ladies In Black

Picture it: Sydney, Australia, 1959, a fancy department store. The shop girls are called Ladies in Black because their uniforms consist of black cocktail dresses, impeccable hair, and elegant makeup.

Lisa (Angourie Rice) is a high school student hired as temporary help around the holidays. She’s an excellent student though her father doesn’t believe in higher education for women, and she’s about to learn some very important life lessons from her new coworkers.

Magda, over in formalwear, is particularly alluring to Lisa. Magda (Julia Ormond) and her husband are war refugees with exotic accents and food and friends. They’re expanding Lisa’s worldview, but also her self-concept.

There isn’t much of a plot here, it’s mostly just one of those sumptuous period pieces that you’re meant to just luxuriate in, and I did. But make no mistake: Ladies In Black isn’t as thin as it might appear. It’s actually really interesting to see how different women are living during this time, a time when it optimistically seemed possible to welcome different people into a country, to sample other cultures for the first time and not have it turn political. It wasn’t an ideal time of course, but it felt like better times were right around the corner, like maybe we were about to turn a page. We weren’t, but sometimes it’s nice just to soak in an isolated little bubble of hope and glamour.

Bigfoot Family

New on Netflix this weekend, Bigfoot Family is the sequel to 2017’s Son of Bigfoot (but don’t worry, if you missed the first one, I’m confident you’ll still be able to navigate the plot of the second).

In the first film, teenage Adam went on a quest to find his long-lost father and found him hiding out in the woods. After a science experiment gone wrong mutated his DNA and turned him into Bigfoot, a pharmaceutical company got wind of things and Adam’s dad felt the only way to protect himself and his family was to go into hiding.

In the sequel, Adam’s father is technically back home but rarely there because his Bigfoot status has accorded him some fame. Adam has learned that he, too, is a Bigfoot – aside from the really big feet, he can heal himself and talk to animals, which is a good thing because several of his father’s four-legged forest friends have since moved in with them, including Wilbur the bear and Trapper the raccoon. Adam’s dad has decided to use his fame in a positive way, lending his celebrity to a village in Alaska concerned that a power company claiming to be 100% clean is actually damaging their ecosystem in secret. But when Adam’s dad goes out there to help out, he quickly disappears. Adam, his mom, plus Wilbur and Trapper, pile into a camper and drive up to Alaska to save their dad, and hopefully also stop the Big Bad Oil Company from doing their thing.

While there’s nothing really wrong about this movie, there’s also nothing very right, or very memorable. There are no big names lending their voices, there are no energetic pop songs, and the plot’s details are going to be a little frustrating to anyone above the age of 5. If you have kids under the age of 5, this might be an okay watch for them, as long as you don’t have to be in the same room. Otherwise this is an unfortunate skip, even knowing how much we need family-friendly fare right now.

I Care A Lot

Marla cares a lot. SO much, or anyway that’s what she tells the judge. This poor little old lady can’t care for herself and her son’s unfit, so Marla (Rosamund Pike) will step in and be her court-appointed guardian, for a fair fee of course. This is how she makes her lavish living, by “caring” for old people she’s cherry-picked for being old but not too old, in relative good health so she can bilk them for a good, long time, with a sizable nest egg and not too many prying family members around to question her judgment. She colludes with doctors to identify these victims, and with care home directors where she’ll stash them while she sells their houses and all their worldly possessions. Many of these older people are of sound mind and body before Marla gets to them, but not for long. Kept restrained, drugged, isolated, and barely fed, Marla’s aged victims will soon appear to be as far gone as she’s claimed. Marla’s about to meet her match.

Jennifer (Dianne Wiest) seems like a perfect target – a retiree with bountiful assets and no known family. But Jennifer isn’t who she seems, as you may have guessed, and Marla’s in for a whole world of trouble. But Marla isn’t just a crook, she’s a tenacious crook, an entitled crook, and she won’t go down without a fight. And oh what a fight!

This movie starts off shocking you with the ugliness and abuse in the system, the vulnerability of the aged, the potential for corruption, but then good old fashioned greed inspires this story to spin wildly off the rails. It’s an entertaining if not particularly realistic watch. Rosamund Pike gives a committed performance, though it may remind you of her turn in Gone Girl where she also played a harmless looking blonde woman whose innocent smile hid her true nature. Marla is a ruthless conwoman. Director J Blakeson does villainy well, he makes it slick, he makes it glossy, and he makes us complicit.  

I liked but didn’t love I Care A Lot; the script could have used a little more of that care, and the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first. The set-up is amazing but Blakeson doesn’t quite excel at this whole dark-comedy-satire-cum-wacky-violent-thriller thing. It’s a delicate balance, something the Coens have perfected but few others can truly pull off. Blakeson doesn’t quite have the courage to maintain his carefully crafted cynicism right up to the last scene. He flinches. I Care A Lot is still worthy of your attention, but I bet you’ll be able to spot both its flaws and its fun.

Space Sweepers

In 2092, forests have vanished and deserts spread over the land. Fading sun and acidic soil mean plants have disappeared and home has become unlivable. Fleeing the dying Earth, UTS Corporation builds a new orbiting home for humanity, but only a chosen few can ascend, and the head of the Corporation (Richard Armitage) has plans to unveil a new habitat on Mars, leaving those on Earth to their fate.

Meanwhile, a ship of non-UTS citizens search for valuable scraps. Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tiger Park (Seon-kyu Jin), Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), plus a robot named Bubs are a bunch of misfits and outcasts who do dirty work because they’re broke, collectively and individually, and badly in need of cash. And then a little girl puts a wrench in their plans.

Dorothy is no ordinary kid, she’s actually a highly weaponized android that merely looks like a 7 year old girl. A bomb, basically, in the busy little body of a child. Not only is a bomb an obvious threat to their ship, but Dorothy is pursued by a few different factions, and any one of them is ready to sacrifice the whole crew of a space sweeper ship to get their hands on her. Our resourceful sweepers resolve to sell her to the highest bidder in order to turn a tidy profit, but along the way they grow pretty attached to the munchkin, even though she’s not quite what she seemed.

Space Sweepers isn’t a great movie, but it’s perfectly serviceable if you like space robot sci-fi action dramas about the inevitable end of the world and the humans who continue to destroy it even beyond its breaking point. It’s effects heavy, action heavy, explosion heavy, fun heavy. The story is secondary, and arguably sometimes gets in the way. We’re here to see robots in space and little girls explode and apocalyptic terrorism, let’s not get up in our feelings. If dumb fun is in your future, this little adventure can be found on Netflix.

Below Zero

Below Zero, despite its stupid name, is actually about a prison break – or a prison transport break, anyway. Yeah, it’s also cold outside. Big whoop. Calling it Below Zero is like calling Drive ’70 Degrees and Sunny’ or Blade Runner ‘Smoggy With a Chance of Rain.’ Incidental weather does not a title make.

Anyway. It’s Martin’s first day on a new police force so he’s been assigned to prisoner transport. Martin (Javier Gutiérrez) will be driving the truck, earringed officer Montesinos (Isak Férriz) will be in the back, and at least half a dozen prisoners will fill the little prisoner cubby holes en route to…well, who cares, the point is, they’ll never make it there. On a dark and foggy road, the truck loses track of the cop car escort that was leading the way. The truck blows a tire and the truck veers off the road. This is actually the least of Martin’s concerns. When this ambush is over, Martin will be the only officer still standing, trapped between the unknown baddies trying to break into the truck and the now loosed prisoners trying to break out. It’s a tough spot that’s only going to get tougher. The guys on the outside want one specific prisoner and will kill everyone and anyone else to get to him. That prisoner knows a bad deal when he sees it and refuses to leave. The truck is impenetrable except for the one key in Martin’s possession so there’s a three way standoff and the guy on the outside will stop at nothing to get his way.

This is not an exceptional movie, but it’s a pretty good one in the action crime genre, if less so from a character point of view. It’s effective, it’s tense, it’s nothing new but it’s well executed, and it’s playing on Netflix right now for your convenience.

The Dig

Edith Pretty has always supposed there may be gold in them there hills. Or artifacts, anyway, something of historical value. And so widowed Mrs. Pretty (Carey Mulligan) engages a disgruntled excavator away from a museum that undervalues him and underpays him. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) digs right in, but what he finds is of far more significance than anyone had dared imagine.

Vexingly, the minute the dig turns up anything of real value, the British Museum and “the man” come sniffing, looking to take credit and ownership. They also take over the dig although no one wanted anything to do with it when it was just a housewife with a hilly backyard; Edith has up until now been self-financing the work.

The 1938 excavation of Sutton Hoo was of course historically significant and netted many revelatory precious artifacts. But for the real people involved, it was a time of personal significance as well. A war is looming. A young boy is without a father. A young woman learns she is not in love with her husband. An old man bonds with a child who isn’t his. A mother learns she will leave her son an orphan. And everyone fights to protect “their” treasure = from the air raids, and the thieves, and the damn greedy bastards. Though history won’t recognize them, Netflix will, assembling a first-rate cast with stand-out performances from Mulligan, Fiennes, and Lily James.

Director Simon Stone’s pacing is exquisite, unfurling a film that is languorous and poetic, unhurried and revealing, with just a tinge of melancholy lingering about the beautiful English countryside. The Dig made me think a lot about legacy – how the people who buried this ship and its treasures left a remarkable historical record for us to find, and in finding it, Edith Pretty et. al became a part of that record too. In some ways, even this film becomes part of this record, dating all the way back to the 6th Century. Of course, our own culture is so materialistic we’d never leave buried anything of great value. If the future isn’t digital, we won’t have left much of an impression, just piles of Chinese plastic. This is why we have such a fascination with archeology; we want to understand our ancestors, to know from whence we come. We’re less adept at telling who we are, and we collectively lack the ability to understand that we, too, might someday be reduced to a few artifacts in a museum. Hubris. It’s a condition of humanity, I suppose, and a film like this, though pretty and competently made, is hardly an adequate defense. In fact, while I found plenty to like about The Dig, it fell short of love, never quite stirring sentiment in the way it clearly expected it would.


After being attacked in a parking garage, Ellen (Madelaine Petsch) wakes up without her sight. The nurse at her bedside tells her the damage to her eyes is irreversible. Unable to see, she is now dependent on her caretaker Clayton (Alexander Koch), whose main job is to help Ellen adjust to her new reality. Clayton spends a fair amount of time with Ellen at her apartment, and when he is not around, Ellen is occasionally visited by the detective investigating her attack as well as her two next-door neighbours, one who is abused and one who is the abuser.

But even without her sight, Ellen sees that something about this situation is….off. She can’t figure out what exactly is wrong but as she pulls at loose threads, her whole world starts unravelling.

Writer/director Cooper Karl establishes early on that the viewer’s eyes cannot be trusted, and it’s a recurring theme on which Sightless’ twists rely. While that approach likely was intended to match Ellen’s experience of being Sightless, it left me feeling disconnected from the film since I kept being reminded that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That disconnect neuters every one of this film’s attempts to shock, surprise and thrill, since nothing on screen can be trusted.

With Sightless lacking any edge due to its structure, you’re better off seeing what else Netflix has on offer.

The White Tiger

I didn’t like the book and I didn’t like the movie.

I am so, so tempted to leave this review at just that one sentence but I know that would be a bit disingenuous since I am very much in the minority on this. So I’ll give you a slightly fuller picture and you will be your own judge. If you’d like to watch this movie, you have my blessing, and you’ll find it on Netflix.

Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is a servant in India; his caste is his destiny. He works for people he admires – Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) – which doesn’t mean they’re nice, only that they’re wealthy, and upwardly mobile . Balram would like to be those things one day too, but for him there is no opportunity and no path toward a better life. Society itself is built around oppressing his kind and making sure they never, ever get their own ideas. So he must beat down his own path, with whatever meagre tools and talents he has. It’s going to be brutal, and it’s going to be bloody, but for Balram, entrepreneurship is the ultimate goal and the holy grail in one. It is worth any price.

The movie kept my attention better than the book, which I found tedious; the film benefits from brisk editing and a Jay-Z remix. I still didn’t enjoy it though, and I’m realizing it’s partially because the protagonist is so dislikable. Balram is hardly the first anti-hero though, and somehow I usually manage to cope. I suppose it’s that when I encounter other characters I dislike – Batman, for example – there’s usually something else I can root for, like good vs. evil. The White Tiger doesn’t give you that; it’s bad vs. worse and you can never be sure which of these slippery sides our protagonist is leaning toward. I guess I needed something to hold onto, and Balram’s underdog status just wasn’t cutting it. Balram’s story is given to us via a letter he’s writing to some successful Chinese businessman, who ultimately brushes him off, unimpressed by the story and the man, and I suppose I, too, was left cold by Balram’s plight. Perhaps you will feel more sympathetic.